With an eye towards Rio and the 2016 Olympics, members of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team arrived in Spain for a 10-day training camp that will include games against three European professional clubs and the Italian National Team.
The U.S. team in Europe is a blend of young and old, veterans and newcomers, all hoping to break into the final 12 and represent the United States in a future Olympics -- be it in 2016 or beyond -- or a FIBA World Cup.
Six of the 11 have won at least one Olympic and/or FIBA World Championship gold medal, but only half of those six -- Sue Bird, Angel McCoughtry and Candace Parker -- have competed in the Olympic Games, one of the most watched and pressure-filled sporting events in the world.
USA National Team head coach Geno Auriemma, however, prefers to spend time focusing on the athletes he has in camp, not those who aren’t here or what is looming down the road. He is looking on the bright side of the situation. And he knows how beneficial it is for the younger athletes to have someone such as three-time Olympic and three-time World Championship gold medalist Bird on the USA National Team European Tour roster.
“It’s difficult in one sense,” said Auriemma, who has coached the USA National Team to a 23-0 record and gold medals in the 2010 and 2014 World Championships and 2012 Olympic Games. “You’re missing half the team that you had in London, and it’s not because they don’t want to play or they’re not good enough to play, it’s other commitments. So, in that sense it’s difficult and in another sense it’s great, because you’re getting a look at some players that you haven’t seen in a long time, or ever (in a USA National Team game) in someone like Elena’s (Delle Donne) case. Players are getting a chance to do things that puts them in a ‘have to do’ situation, so you can see more of what they can do as opposed to to they’re the 10th, 11th, 12th, and they’re only counted on to do a little bit. Now, they’re five, six, seven, eight, and they have to play. And they have to play well.”
Bird, who was an understudy at the 2002 World Championship and 2004 Olympics under now-USA assistant coach Dawn Staley, understands the importance of this training camp and is not taking her role lightly.
“This is one of our last training camps, even though it’s just the month of October, before the Olympics next summer,” said Bird following the team’s second practice. “So, hopefully what we’re all getting out of it is another opportunity to develop some chemistry, play with one another, play under coach Auriemma, learn his stuff, and then go from there.”
Having gone from a rookie to an international veteran, Bird has been taking the younger players under her wing. After all, one of the two point guards here, Danielle Robinson and Courtney Vandersloot, could be taking the torch from Bird and leading a future USA National Team.
“As far as the younger players go, it’s a really great opportunity for them in that there are some older, veteran players who were unable to attend this camp,” Bird stated. “With that, obviously we’d rather have them here, but since they’re not, it is a great opportunity for some players to get more playing time, to get more minutes, to get more comfortable and really show if they belong on the Olympic team or not.”
“Obviously with Sue, this is her fourth time around with the Olympic team,” Auriemma said. “That’s a long time. Everyone has a certain level of respect for her, respect that she’s earned. So having her here is great for the younger players.”
“It’s fun to watch Sue and her comfortability out there, how everybody looks to her,” said Vandersloot who tomorrow night will play in her very first game wearing a USA Basketball jersey. “She thrives in that position. She’s a great leader and that’s something that I really want to do, just learn from her. It’s a constant leadership. She’s out there to help this team. It’s my responsibility to pick up on things. She’s great on little things coming up, like which way to go. It’s just simple things that are comfortable for her. It’s great to play behind a player who has been winning at so many levels.”
Vandersloot knows the value of hard work. A small player who went to a small college and never really anticipated being in the position of playing for her country, Vandersloot was surprised when she heard her name called as the No. 3 pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft following her senior campaign at Gonzaga. And while she’s still a little bit in awe of being a part of the USA National Team, she knows this opportunity is one that will benefit her.
“I’m hoping to be able to get out of this as much as I can, learn as much as I can, pick up on some things,” ‘Sloot’ said following the team’s second practice in Spain. “It’s my first time, so I feel as if I’m a little bit inexperienced. But, there’s a lot around me that I can learn from. It’s a great experience, and I’m excited to be here. I really want to be a part of this team.”
“I was in their position a long time ago,” said Bird of the younger USA National Team athletes. “I do know that it can be a little intimidating. I know it can be a little difficult, because you’re really just thrown together and you’re trying to make it work in a very short period of time. I just try to be as supportive as I can and talk as much as I can.”
The first test for this USA squad will come on Oct. 4 when it faces EuroLeague team Uni Girona (12 pm EDT).
For Bird, it’s an opportunity to help impart her knowledge to young USA National Team members.
For Vandersloot and others like her, the game will be the first of hopefully many opportunities to learn from the best and improve their overall games.
And for Auriemma, it’s another step in the process of figuring out what the 2016 USA team will look like.
“This being one of the final times, if not the final time, that we get together, it’s a crucial time for us,” concluded Auriemma. “And even after we’ve done this, who knows where we are. But at least we’ll be closer. After two days, it’s been good. I like what I see. The players that we’ve had have always been great to work with. I’m anxious to play, and I know that they are. We’re anxious to face some outside competition tomorrow.”
While the USA National Team’s games in Europe will not be televised in the United States, you can follow along with the action via social media at: